SC upholds media freedom, rejects plea in chopper case

The Supreme Court on Friday dismissed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking a Special Investigation Team (SIT) probe into the role of media in the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter scam case.

Calling the plea an "attack" on the media's independence, the bench said, "We will not direct any investigation against the media unless there is a direct involvement.

Rejecting the PIL filed by journalist Hari Jaisingh, the bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra said it seemed is a disguised attempt to curtail independence and freedom of media. "This is an attack on media. We will not entertain this," it said.

"We cannot curtail the right of the media in this manner. The media has been given an independent status in our democratic polity. Why should we entertain this?" observed the bench, also comprising Justices A M Khanwilkar and Mohan M Shantanagoudar.

The court, however, clarified that if the investigative agencies come across evidence with regard to involvement of certain individuals then they are free to probe it. However, there cannot be an investigation into the role of media as a whole, it said.

Senior advocate Geeta Luthra, appearing for Singh, alleged that some members of the media were bribed by the offshore chopper firm to influence the decision-making authority in favour of the VVIP helicopter deal.

"I am seeking a direction to the Central Bureau of Investigtion and the Enforcement Directorate to also investigate the role of media persons in the case," she said.

Attorney general Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for the Centre, sought dimissal of the plea at the threshold, asking how there can be an investigation into the role of media when there is an allegation that two persons entered into a "media management agreement".

Considering the arguments, the bench asked, "Is this agreement registered? What is the admissibility of the agreement as evidence?

"Freedom of media is going to be curtailed and smothered .... we will not entertain this."

The journalist in his PIL alleged that some media persons were bribed and given unwarranted benefits in exchange for favouring the VVIP chopper deal.

It was also alleged that certain journalists were sent to Italy along with their families by the company.

The apex court had on 3 January this year agreed to hear the PIL for a court-monitored probe by CBI and the ED in the AgustaWestland helicopter case and the allegation that some media persons took bribes from foreign arms dealers in connection with the deal.

The plea had said that the agencies, CBI and ED, which have been probing the case, be also asked to submit a report to the court in a sealed cover stating the status of investigating.

It has also sought "setting up of a Commission of Inquiry under the stewardship of a retired judge of this court, or any other eminent person which this court deems fit" to probe the allegations that some media persons indulged in corrupt practices.

The PIL had alleged that "Finmeccanica (parent company of AgustaWestland) had invited a group of Indian journalists on a fully paid for trip to Italy".

The Cabinet Committee on Security in 2010 had cleared a proposal to acquire 12 helicopters for the use of VVIPS after a long process that involved change in some parameters, evaluations and negotiations and these helicopters were to be used by the Communication Squadron of the air force. The helicopter deal was later cancelled.